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Mountain Heroes: Teri Blanton

My name is Teri .

Mountains are my place of refuge and comfort.
I must do all I can to protect them.

... There are also global impacts. For the last decade, I have tried to put mountaintop removal into the conversation about global climate change—because the destruction of over 1.2 million acres of some of the most diverse hardwood forests in the world and the burning of dirty coal certainly add up to climate change.

Teri Blanton: My Mountain Story

Teri Blanton has been fighting mountaintop removal mining and toxic pollution in her home state of Kentucky for 20 years. She is former chairperson and current fellow of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a statewide group that is working to protect communities from coal pollution and promote environmental justice in Kentucky, and a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a federal advisory council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While struggling to fight coal pollution and mountaintop removal mining in her community, she also learned that her home in Harlan County had been the site of decades of toxic waste dumping by an electrical manufacturing company. All at once, she found herself fighting for protections from two separate industries that both had been dumping on her community and working to educate her neighbors on the harms of both.

This is Teri’s story:

My name is Teri Blanton. My grandmother came to Kentucky in a covered wagon and settled in a town called Dayhoit, up White Star Hollow. Growing up in White Star Hollow, our playground was the mountains, creeks, and rivers. In the summertime, all of us kids would meet up in this one special place in the Cumberland River that we called the Pump Hole. We’d spend days swimming and splashing there.

When I was a young girl I lived with my grandmother, which was right beside Ewing Creek. Before I could come in at night after playing in the creek all day, she made me wash my feet with a bar of soap. When I got older, I watched the creek run every color except for clear because of coal pollution. My children didn’t get to enjoy the creek the way I did; they grew up in the midst of coal muck in the ’80s and early ’90s. I had to take them to national parks and forests, and I did often, but I would have much rather have let them enjoy the mountains and creeks in our own community.

Mountaintop removal mining, smaller-scale strip mining, and deep mining — it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference in terms of the destruction. All three forms of coal mining have changed that little hollow where we lived. The deep mining and strip mining took over near my parents’ house in the seventies. We always heard about the infamous landowner up there. The talk of the neighborhood was that he was going to make his millions from the strip mining and then leave. And he did. He left all the coal waste ponds behind, and the mess flooded my parents’ land.

Over time, strip mining grew even more expansive and destructive, to become mountaintop removal mining. Soon, because there was so much mountaintop removal mining and so much coal coming off the mountains around us, a coal processing plant moved right into the middle of my community. This resulted in coal trucks constantly going up and down our roads.

When my kids were young, every morning they walked down our hill to the main road to catch their school bus. This was the road that all the coal trucks used, so my kids had to walk across puddles of coal muck to get on their school bus. My kids complained to me about how nasty it was. One day I called the state transportation department and asked them to take care of the situation so my kids didn’t have to wade through puddles of toxic, cancer-causing pollution to get on a school bus. A few minutes later there was a coal company truck circling my house, trying to intimidate me. I called the transportation department back and asked if they called the mining company. He said yes, so I requested to speak with a supervisor. The transportation department supervisor told me this was something I was just going to learn to live with living in a coal mining community.

In addition to dealing with constant coal pollution and mountaintop removal mining, our town had a history of toxic dumping. For decades before and during my childhood, an electrical industry company had been dumping its toxic waste right in the waters where we played, unbeknownst to us. When this was revealed, a few of my neighbors and friends started a community group called Concerned Citizens Against Toxic Waste. I am so thankful for their work and their persistence in organizing; they taught me so much. Monetta Burkhart and Joan Robinette would call me at least once a month and say, "Teri, we need you." At the time, I was a single mom trying to care for my dying mother, working full time, raising my kids, and standing up to coal pollution. But they didn’t give up, and after I lost my mother to cancer, I joined them in educating our neighbors about what they had been exposed to through decades of toxic waste dumping. Through this little band of neighbors we accomplished big things. We managed to get the site of the dumping declared a federal Superfund site.

Meanwhile, mountaintop removal mining was happening all around us. We were constantly struggling with the dust from the explosions, and we saw the coal company destroy our forests and especially our creeks. On coal issues, I always felt like I was standing up, but I was standing up alone. So I teamed up with a few concerned little old ladies in my community, and we began to watch the creek more closely. They were afraid to call to report the creek pollution, so I would regularly call the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources to report the water problems.
Somewhere along the way I read Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s newsletter and realized that people working together across the state speaking with one voice was a whole lot stronger than a couple neighbors in just one community. I joined KFTC.

Eventually, for my own sanity and for the health of my kids, I moved us out of Dayhoit. I watched too many people in my community die too young. At the time I moved, five of my neighbors had just died. It was just too much. We moved to Berea, where you can see your water source and see that it was safe and clean. That was so important to me after knowing that I had been poisoning my children and myself for years just by living where we did. Though I no longer live in an impacted area, the most important thing I’ve learned through my decades of activism is to stay connected to the impacted communities.

I think that when you destroy an entire mountain and reduce it to rubble, along with all the plant life and animal species, and when you open up the earth exposing all the heavy metals that are encased in it and poisoning the people below you — that’s just the worst of the worst. The local communities are dealing with this, but there are also global impacts. For the last decade, I have tried to put mountaintop removal into the conversation about global climate change — because the destruction of over 1.2 million acres of some of the most diverse hardwood forests in the world and the burning of dirty coal certainly add up to climate change.

I don’t consider myself a hero, just a good citizen who tries to be aware of my surroundings and how the world works. My heroes are all the people who live in these communities right underneath mountaintop removal sites and who speak up even when they feel alone.